Public-school meditation? Buddhist magazine offers mindful approach on church-state issue

Namaste Gesture

Globalization is a whole lot of give and take. It gives us cheap merchandise from Southeast Asian sweat shops and Facebook friends in Australia who we've never met, even as it takes away American blue-collar manufacturing jobs and the ease with which we could allow ourselves to feel safe if we stayed purposely oblivious to the suffering of the world at large.

Globalization has also put to rest the conceit that the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation. Strictly speaking, it's not even an Abrahamic nation (the term of choice when adding Islam to the elite mix).

I'm referring to the growing presence in the U.S. of individuals who follow non-Abrahamic religious or philosophical beliefs. But even more so, to the growth of practices and ideas about living a meaningful life that originated in non-Abrahamic religious environments -- in particular, yoga and meditation techniques imported from South and East Asia.

GetReligion writers have over the years published a slew of blog posts dissecting coverage of news reports about how yoga (by which I mean hatha yoga, as the practice of stretches and postures is more accurately called) and various forms of meditation have become commonplace at fitness centers and in church basements across America. So have hundreds, if not thousands, of other print, broadcast and online news and life-style media.

We've also written about how some view the Westernization of these once-exotic practices as being culturally insensitive. And of course we've written time and again on how some more traditional Christian and Jewish voices have rejected ostensibly secularized yoga and meditation classes, insisting instead that they are religious activities that conflict with their own beliefs.

So these are not new issues for us and, I'm sure, the preponderance of GetReligion readers. But that is not to say that these issues do not persist.

A recent manifestation of this popped up in Georgia. This Washington Post story tells the tale of how some Christian parents there are upset that their children are being taught yoga as a relaxation tool at their local public school.

Issue-wise, there's little new in that story. So why mention it? I do so as an introduction to the relevance of an unusually candid exchange on the appropriateness of introducing Eastern mediative techniques into American pubic schools that was published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

I say unusually candid because of the magazine's willingness to state the negative arguments on a complicated church-state separation issue; negative arguments that many, if not most, of its subscribers would probably not agree with. For a magazine dedicated to spreading Buddhist teachings, that even-handedness is worth a solid shout-out.

Tricycle ran two articles on the issue, which it narrowed to a conversation solely about the currently popular practice of Mindfulness meditation,  often marketed as a balm to offset the negative impacts of the psychological pressure and stress that accompany a typical middle class Western lifestyle.

(Full disclosure: I've practiced various Buddhist- and Hindu-derived meditation techniques off and on for about 35 years. Sometimes they have been more traditional in form, sometimes less so, including the adding of a Jewish spiritual overlay.  My current preferred form is Mindfulness, which I find personally very beneficial.)

Both a quarterly print magazine and an online site for news updates and all things Buddhist, Tricycle, founded in New York in 1990, tries to cover Buddhism's many ethnic and philosophical strains. It's name references the three fundamental components of Buddhist philosophy; the historical Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, or the enlightened teacher, the teachings, and the community.

Religion journalists take note: Tricycle, and to a lesser degree its main journalistic competitor, Snow Lion -- until recently called Shambhala Sun and generally more narrowly focused on Tibetan Buddhist expressions -- is essential to keeping up with Buddhism and Buddhist-connected trends in America. Check it out.

Tricycle published two essays in its Spring 2016 print version on the Mindfulness issue. (You may encounter a paywall problem. It seems to come and go on some devices. If it happens, just try again, or pay.)

The first essay took the position that because of its Buddhist roots, teaching Mindfulness in publicly funded schools violates church-state constitutional safeguards. As a pullout quote stated, "The fact that there exist secular benefits to mindfulness does not make the practice secular."

"For those who seek to alleviate the suffering of others, it is crucial to respect the freedom of students and their parents to choose their own cultural, religious, and spiritual resources," said writer Candy Gunther Brown, a religious studies professor at Indiana University-Bloomington.

The second essay, which supported teaching Mindfulness in public schools, was penned by Saki Santorelli, a professor of medicine, director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic and director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (a publicly funded institution, as well as a pioneering institution in the use of Mindfulness to aid in pain control and various psychological aspects of serious medical problems).

Santorelli wrote that Mindfulness has been so shorn of its religious origins as to equate with the contemporary understanding of the Golden Rule -- generally rendered as, "Do unto others as you would have others do to you." That it is to say, it's now a non-sectarian tool for reducing individual and communal inner-strife.

"Mindfulness," Santorelli said, " ... mirrors the principles of scientific investigation by providing people with a method for learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in their lives. It is impartial."

I doubt these two essays will settle the church-state argument. I'm sure we'll see lots more news stories such as the Georgia case cited above.

And who knows what other American church-state issue have yet to manifest thanks to globalization's profound impact on the practice, and non-practice, of religion in America and the world. If a religious or philosophical worldview exists anywhere, it's a safe bet today that somebody, somewhere in the U.S. is into it and thinks it should receive equal treatment under the law.

Let's hope more journalistic discussions of this complex church-state issue are handled as well as Tricycle did the job.

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